Medical professionals in southern Saskatchewan are hoping to make youth mental health care more accessible for patients in the province's northern communities — and they think robots are part of the answer.

The robots, or Remote Presence Technology (RPT), work similarly to a Skype or FaceTime application, where both parties can see and hear each other in real-time.

Our hope is in the future that each community in northern Saskatchewan will have its own. - Dr. Ivar Mendez, head of the department of surgery at University of Saskatchewan

"There's a true epidemic in terms of suicide in youth, especially in First Nations communities in the north — six times more than the rate of youth in the south," said Dr. Ivar Mendez, the head of the department of surgery at University of Saskatchewan.

"They may have an initial assessment but then they go back to their communities without a followup."

Unlike basic smartphone applications, the units are outfitted with what Mendez calls "ears," which direct the top portion (or "head") of the robot towards the person speaking.

The physician using the robot remotely can also control where it goes, whether it's down the hall to another patient's room or in a patient's home.

The units can connect to diagnostic equipment like a stethoscope and ultrasonography.

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Dr. Ivar Mendez describes suicide among youth in northern Saskatchewan communities as a 'true epidemic.' (Radio-Canada)

Less travel for patients

The new RPT units will be added to six others in the northern part of the province. Officials are assessing communities now and will place the robots based on need.

"Our hope is in the future that each community in northern Saskatchewan will have its own," said Mendez.

Last year, six young women in northern Saskatchewan communities died by suicide, and prompted calls for action by the FSIN, First Nations chiefs, and parents within those communities.

The situation is often referred to as a crisis.

Before the units, many children had to travel several hours from their home communities to tertiary medical centres for follow-ups. The introduction of new communication technologies could have an effect on this practice.

"We can take care of these children in their own communities 64 per cent of the time," said Mendez.

Sometimes patients from the North have to use medical taxis, and may be seated with others who are ill and not feeling well. When they get to Saskatoon or Regina, further issues crop up.

"Sixty-five per cent or more speak a language other than English as a first language," said Dr. Veronica McKinney, director of Northern Medical Services.

"They don't necessarily feel they can ask questions, they feel uncomfortable, and they just want to get out of here. Sometimes they're here just for a 15-minute appointment," she said.

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Dr. Veronica McKinney, director of Northern Medical Services, says the effect of the new robots could be "life changing." (Radio-Canada)

Tool for retention

The RPT units will not replace physicians in the North, according to McKinney and Mendez.

"When there's no other alternative, no other real person there, the system provides that important access," said Mendez.

Some northern communities don't have 24-hour access to a physician, and sometimes nurses are left with little support.

"We don't have psychiatrists who can practise in a small community because they might not be able to have a practice in a community of 1,000 people."

The units will be manned by existing psychiatrists on staff in the province.

They may also increase retention and recruitment rates for nurses in northern communities.

"Nurses want to go where they have the robots because they know they will have help from physicians in real-time," said Mendez.